Wednesday, June 10, 2015

The Voice of Your Baptism

This is a short teaching on baptism I wrote as part of my studies this summer. It is intended for use in my local church setting.

When I was young, I went through confirmation classes where my father was pastor. It came time for a decision to join the church. I asked my dad if I could be baptized again, since I didn't remember the first time. Dad paused, and with a twinkle in his eye, said "it's not important whether you remember being baptized. The important thing is remembering that you were baptized."

In his gentle and pastoral way, my father pointed to the greatest truth of baptism. Something happens at a place in time, as the church claims us as one of God's own. But it also points to a hidden mystery. The journey of our lives becomes one of allowing baptism to unfold, transforming from historical fact to timeless truth.

What is this truth it takes a lifetime to claim?

Baptism is the very core of who we are. It is a sacrament, an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. Since the beginnings of the church, it has been the sign of our very identity in Christ.

There is a kaleidoscope of images in scripture which bring baptism to light. In the beginning, the Spirit of God blew across the face of deep waters. Emerging from chaos, water became central to existence. We drink it, we wash in it, and we can't live without it. So it is by the imaginative grace of God that one of the most fundamental signs of life, water, is made holy. It is through water, at the time of the great flood, that we were saved, and it is by crossing the waters of the Red Sea that we were set free.

Likewise, the New Testament gazes at the prism of baptism, revealing rich colors. It is a sign of our new creation in Christ. It mirrors our participation in his death and resurrection and reflects the washing away of sin. In baptism, we claim that we are born from above, receiving the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. We become light for the world, now clothed in Christ. We are set free from the bondage of evil and welcomed into the family of God.

It may seem strange to claim such vast meaning for an event we may or may not remember. But the nature of the baptism is that it is a gift given once. A second baptism would imply that God's grace wasn't good enough the first time. Regardless of where we are in life when we receive it, one baptism looks backwards and forwards to the contours and colors of Christian life. What happens at the font not only illuminates everything else, it draws us into a life beyond ourselves - the life of God.

In our tradition, baptism is a sign of the outpouring of God's grace, not our personal decision. It is at confirmation that we "make firm" the promise of baptism, saying "yes" to God who has already said "yes" to us. As far as the amount of water, I am fond of saying you could be baptized in the ocean, and it still doesn't measure up to the amount of grace it represents. Baptism takes place in the midst of God's family; it is not a private transaction. It is a blessing shared with the whole congregation, who renews their baptisms and helps us live into our baptismal identity.

Among the scriptural images of baptism, perhaps what is most central is the baptism of Jesus himself. Scriptures distinguish the baptism of John, one of repentance, with our baptism in Christ, one of fire and Spirit. At Jesus's baptism, the sky opened and a dove descended. A voice from heaven spoke, saying "this is my beloved Son."

What is this truth it takes a lifetime to claim? The same voice is heard at our baptism. We are God's beloved. We are not what we are culturally conditioned to think we are. We are not consumers, or collectors, or achievers. We are the beloved, in the community of God's beloved. That changes everything. It is the truth we always come back to as we practice the art of life.

After years of reflecting on my father's words, I wanted to learn about my baptism. I asked Dad where I was baptized, and he didn't remember. I asked him who baptized me, and he didn't remember that either. I thought, "I should have asked my mom while she was still alive!" Finally, after some work, the historian of the church Dad was serving found it in their book.

I was baptized on May 30, 1965, by Rev. J.P. West, Sr., my grandfather. I went back to that church to spend time by the font and remember.

Later, I found my baptismal certificate in some things my mom had left me. I laughed. I might have known. It is in community with God's beloved that we remember who we truly are.

Pictured is a baptismal icon by He Qi.